Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Deadline Recipes: Formulaic, Cookie-Cutter Books?

Laura Vivanco joins the Pink Heart Society to talk about a favorite romance "sweet", it's packaging and production...

Since I’ve been given the slot usually occupied by the Deadline Recipe, I thought I’d talk about biscuits/cookies.

One of the common misperceptions of romances, and particularly category romances, is that they’re written to a very specific formula, churned out as though onto an assembly-line, shaped by cookie-cutter guidelines and packaged as a cheap, escapist product. As a reader of category romances, I knew that wasn’t true: I could tell the difference between the various Harlequin Mills & Boon lines and I also had favourite authors whose writing styles and characters particularly appealed to me. As an academic, I set out to demonstrate precisely why it wasn’t true, and the result is For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011).

The literary theorist Northrop Frye managed to divide all of literature into just five different literary “modes.” It’s proof of category romances’ diversity that they exist in four out of five of them. They range from the dark-chocolate fantasy romances of the LUNA and Nocturne lines, through the sugar-rush inducing lifestyles of many of the heroes and heroines of the Presents/Modern/Sexy line, to the everyday oat-based settings of many of the Superromances and on to others which have the ironic citrus-peel tang of chick-lit. Some may be “escapist” but many Harlequin Mills & Boon romances have dealt with very serious issues, sometimes even very directly, like Sally Wentworth’s Broken Destiny (1990) whose heroine is diagnosed with breast cancer: its sales helped raise funds for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Marion Lennox’s The Doctor's Rescue Mission (2005) depicts a remote island community hit by an earthquake and a tsunami: the back cover of my copy has been hastily altered by the addition of a sticker reading “On behalf of the publisher and the author of this book (written prior to recent events) a donation has been made in support of the Tsunami relief operation in Asia.”

Of course all category romances focus on a love story which ends well and it’s also true that category romances often return again and again to story-types derived from myths, legends, fairy tales and chivalric romances. They may also allude to a wide range of literary texts and works of popular culture. The range of basic ingredients from which authors choose can therefore vary widely, and even novels which have basically the same flavour can demonstrate significant amounts of variation. The IT consultant heroine of Fiona Harper’s Invitation to the Boss's Ball (2009), for example, may be a Cinderella-type heroine, but she’s very different from put-upon Bertha in Betty Neels’s A Christmas Proposal (1996), and neither actively pursues her hero like the heroine of Constance M. Evans’s Second-Hand Cinderella (1937). These are not authors who slavishly drag out an overworked heroine, a wicked stepmother, two ugly stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a prince and a special pair of shoes. Rather, they carefully select and rework particular motifs and themes from the fairy tale. The end results may all be Cinderella romances, but they’re not made to exactly the same recipe.

Dr Laura Vivanco usually blogs about romance at Teach Me Tonight. Her For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance is available from the publisher as a pdf. A Kindle edition is available at Amazon .at .com .de .es .fr .it and .uk . HEB has teamed up with Lulu so that paper copies can be printed on demand.

The biscuit-making images are the property of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, who have made them available via Wikimedia Commons. The first shows “One of the workers topping up the mixture for the production of Wright's Biscuits” and the second is of workers on one of the production lines at the same factory.

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